A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:
Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!
The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)
Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.
Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)
Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …
Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …
… for The London Column.
See also: Before the Blue Wall.
Abney Park Cemetery, N16. © David Secombe 2010.
© Martin Usborne.
I was born right by Old Street roundabout on January 1st, 1927. Some of the kids used to beat me up – but in a friendly way. Hoxton was full of characters in those days. The Mayor was called Mr. Brooks and he was also a chimney sweep. Guess what? Before the coronation, he was putting up decorations and he fell off a ladder and got killed. Well, it happens. Then there was a six-foot tall girl, she was really massive. She used to attack people and put them in police vans. Maria was her name. Then there was Brotsky who used to kill chickens with a long stick. His son’s name was Monty. That’s not a common one is it? ‘Monty Brotsky’.
© Martin Usborne
I worked two years as a cabinet maker in Hemsworth Street just off Hoxton market. But when my sinuses got bad I went to Hackney Road putting rivets on luggage cases. For about twenty years I did that job. My foreman was a bastard. Apart from that it was OK. But if I was clever, very clever, then I would have liked to be an accountant. It’s a very good job. And if I was less heavy … you know what I’d like to be? I’d like to be a ballet dancer. That would be my dream.
© Martin Usborne
I don’t mind people taking pictures of me. But I wouldn’t let a girl take a picture of me. She might have a boyfriend. I don’t want any trouble. And who knows, he might think she wants to run off with me. You got to be careful where you go nowadays. Martin, if you want to take this picture you had better be quick. I don’t take a good picture when my bladder is full.
© Martin Usborne
If I try, I can imagine the future. It’s like watching a film. Pavements will move, nurses will be robots and cars will get smaller and grow wings … you’ve just got to wait. They will make photographs that talk. You will look at a picture of me and you will hear me say: ‘Hello I’m Jospeph Markovitch’ and then it will be me telling you abut things. Imagine that! I also have an idea that in about fifty years Hoxton Square will have a new market with an amazing plastic rain cover. So if it rains the potatoes won’t get wet. I don’t know what else they will sell. Maybe bowler hats. Nothing much changes round here in the end.
© Martin Usborne.
There’s no point crying about things is there? People don’t see you when you’re sad. Best just to keep walking.
Do you know that I can’t eat lettuce? I’ve got no teeth, not for ten years. It’s hard to like lettuce if you haven’t got teeth.
… taken from I’ve Lived In East London for 86.5 Years, photographs by Martin Usborne, the debut publication of Hoxton Mini Press. More details may be found on their Kickstarter page.
© David Secombe.
July, 1978. I am 16. I am serving out my final days as a pupil at a comically inadequate private school in Surrey’s lush commuter belt. I am bailing out before ‘A’ levels because it has not been a happy three years and I am taking the earliest opportunity to escape. To mark the end of my final term I take my camera to school. There are some interesting things to photograph.
The shrine in the locker above (it wasn’t my locker) consists of pictures cut from the pages of the sacred music title of the day, New Musical Express. The photos of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, the young Bob Geldof, Ian Dury and company were most probably the work of NME stalwarts Pennie Smith, Chalkie Davies and Kevin Cummins, and would have accompanied articles by the likes of Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Charles Sharr Murray, Nick Kent, etc.. By the summer of 1978, Punk was mainstream enough to be embraced by all but the most fastidious privately-educated schoolboy, even if the irony of its acceptance by future mid-management executives was lost upon the lads themselves. (Although it is worth mentioning that the much-worshipped Joe Strummer had been a pupil at a neighbouring private school a few years earlier, where he became a friend of my brother. Joe – or John – swapped his camera for my brother’s drum kit, and later credited this exchange as furnishing him with his first musical instrument. Since I first got into photography by using my brother’s camera, you could say that Joe Strummer’s Minolta got me into photography – except that he also said that his first instrument was a ukelele.)
© David Secombe.
The atmosphere of those distant, final days was a strange admixture of gleeful anarchy and leafy English pastoral; exams done, the highlight of each afternoon was the illicit visit to an abandoned theatre, a crumbling, doomed edifice in a lush wooded hollow. This imposing structure offered wall area large enough to proclaim as loudly as one was able the primacy of favourite bands, whilst the surrounding greenery furnished a sylvan setting for ritualised smoking sessions.
© David Secombe, 1978.
© David Secombe, 1978.
The following year, the theatre and the grubby enchantment of its grotto was cleared and a monumental circulatory system took its place, thus wrecking a perfectly inoffensive little suburban town. Years later, when the thunderous circle of the M25 imprinted itself upon the green hinterland of the capital, the course of the motorway took it within a few yards of the school, destroying at least one of its favoured – and, by some of us, much-hated – routes for cross-country runs. Still later, the school was hit by a scandal attached to one of its teaching faculty (not present in my time), which made the national press and prised skeletons loose from various closets. I was able to revisit a decade or so ago, after suggesting to a director friend that it would make a good location for an episode of a TV detective series he was filming. I visited the unit on location; and it seemed to my 40-year old self that the entire school had been demolished and replaced with an 8:10 scale replica.
The late 1970s have become subsumed into the nostalgia business, and there is something absurd and not a little nauseating about the era being trumpeted as some kind of lost eden.But the youth we are given is the only one we have; as some Facebook wag said recently, Punk was for my generation what World War 2 was for our fathers’. (And what did we get afterwards? The New Romantics. That has always struck me as an indication of cultural failure.) I felt largely out of sync with my time then and, predictably enough, have felt largely out of sync with it ever since. In any case, these 35-year old photos strike me as being better than they have any right to be, and almost persuade me that I knew what I was doing when I took them. This is what our memories should look like: a flattering improvement on reality – and they are dedicated to anyone finishing school this month. Someone like my daughter, in fact.
© David Secombe 1978.
… for The London Column.